Exceptional Cities

Exceptional Cities
Photo by Jörg Schubert


The aerial city of Aviana is nearly invisible from the ground. As you crane your neck to look, it shimmers in a haze. Is it only a mirage? Perched high atop an artificial forest of spindly poles and thin masts, it seems to float in the sky.

Rickety ladders and unsafe stairs without adequate guardrails or solid landings climb in cages, towers that resemble those erected for electric power transmission lines, a lacy structure of thin steel struts. Content in their city of airy bowers and skybox suites, inhabitants seldom come down to earth. Ascend if you dare and take in the view.

The region is one of jagged peaks like the teeth of a saw, gorges that cut like deep wounds, and plains littered with outcrops and boulders that glitter and flash like so many shards of flint or obsidian. This harsh landscape has an austere beauty and a hidden value. It is rich in crystals, productive of rare metals, and chockablock with minerals.

Cables sway between the poles and airy towers in all directions like a spider web, and from this network Aviana hangs like a fringe of baubles. Houses are built, or more accurately woven, as nests of lightweight materials: balsa wood, plastic, aluminum foil, sheets of membrane, tensile rods, polymer films, translucent panels and a gorgeous array of synthetic fabrics. Everything is in constant motion. Building parts expand and contract with changes in temperature and relative humidity. Joints bend freely, and seams overlap. Impervious to wind and rain, the city is flexible, able to weather storm and calm.

Tiny aircraft come and go in Aviana without noise or disturbance. On arrival, they hover like hummingbirds, then dart to their chosen destination, where they land in a bank of elastic bands. On departure, they spring from moorings as if shot from a sling. These flying machines are miniature helicopters, personal gliders, and wind-up propellers. People attach themselves to a sail or a pair of retractable wings to soar on the breeze. Or they hook their body harness to a cable overhead and jump into the void, having calculated to a nicety where they will swoop and alight at last. Like acrobats, trapeze artists or sailors aloft in the rigging of a ship, they have no fear of heights. The air is their element. They are born with superior reflexes, and their sense of balance is second to none.

Avianian talk is sweet and high-pitched, composed of whistles, trills, tweets, and bursts of staccato chatter. Rapid and bright, it reminds the visitor of a chorus of birds. The language is unsuited to express deep emotion, or to dwell on the darker aspects of existence, but its music exceeds all other human speech. A pure accent is impossible for non-natives to acquire. With few consonants and a wide range of vowels, Avianian uses rhythm and tone to express grammar. The most ordinary sentence sounds like a song. Disagreeable thoughts and banal complaints come across as bel canto arias.

Bright-eyed and quick in their bodily movements, people relish their likeness to birds. They dress in bold colours, in outfits like plumage, and their hairstyles are windblown. Everyday attire is a display of vanity and devil-may-care. To a man or to a woman – the sexes are equal – they are extrovert and uninhibited. They love to get together.

From an earlier economy focused on mining, smelting, resource extraction and terrestrial spoliation, practices that fouled the nest, and exports that depended on the whims of the market, Aviana moved to a cloud-based model. From its lofty vantage, Aviana now excels in satellite broadcast and hyperspace relays, with related enterprises in electronic content, digital product, remote data storage, and cyberglut. Long-range weather and atmospheric research are coming in, as are aerodynamics and nebulonomics.

The apparel industry, a natural fit for this fashion-forward place, uses silk and feathers, gossamer fabrics that weigh less than an ounce, puffs of lace and bursts of tulle. Patterns drape freely and ripple on the form. A business suit is as sleek as a cormorant. A cocktail dress seems about to fly away.

The university is known for its philosophy department and speculative ventures. Without campus or classroom, it teaches all academic courses on the air. The pride of Aviana, this school of higher edification strives always to rise to the next level.


Located north of the Arctic Circle, where the frozen tundra meets the ice-capped ocean, Wassamotta lies in a white wasteland, a desolate place of ice and snow, where winter lasts nine months of the year. On the darkest days, the sun cannot even clear the horizon, and all you see is a fitful gleam. The cold is so severe that human habitation seems out of the question. Most of the time, the doughty citizens lumber like bears, retreat to their dens with steaming mugs, munch fatty, calorie-laden snacks and watch old movies through half-closed eyes.

Yet around the time of the winter solstice the city comes alive. The Carnival of Ice is the annual event, the time of year that everyone anticipates. They mark it on calendars and promote it through advertisements. In Wassamotta, bleakness and cold unlock the imagination: this is the season for folderol and hoopla. Visitors flock to the subzero city. Hotels are booked to capacity, and restaurants are jammed with tourists. Theatres mount ambitious productions of avant-garde plays, the symphony gives a gala performance, and the ballet company dances up a storm. The whole downtown is electrically lit like an endless marquee.

The public park in the centre is devoted to a display of sculptures carved in ice: fantastic beasts, cartoon characters, gods from northern mythology and caricatures of public figures. Erected of ice, a grandiose castle or Crystal Palace rises on the site of the frozen duck pond. Great blocks of ice are cemented together by plain water, with flying buttresses, sparkling pinnacles, Gothic arcades and suites of interconnected rooms illuminated in various colours. Music plays from loudspeakers, while people in bulky coats and scarves troop through the palace to ooh and ahh. For the hot-blooded tourist, a bar constructed entirely of ice, with stools of ice on which to lounge in boots and mittens, serves drinks in icy glasses.

For a few weeks in summer, the port has open water. Ships enter and leave the docks in a dash of coming and going. They load and unload cargo and passengers in a round-the-clock orgy made all the more thrilling by a sun that never sets. Fish are rich in the frigid waters. Catching them for export formed the base of the 19-century economy. Herds of caribou and arctic sheep were also a mainstay, and they figure large in traditional lore. The 20th century added petroleum, with its derricks, pumps and gargantuan tankers. A delicate perfume wafts through the streets of light sweet crude.

Wassamottans, however, are sluggish and dull in the interlude that passes for summer. A spell of warm weather affects them like spring fever. Their eyes turn glassy, they bump into things, and they forget their own names. They watch the bustle of the port and yawn.

When spring comes and the soil can be dug, they plant their cabbages, chard and onions. Only the hardiest of flowers can thrive. They bloom for a day and quickly go to seed. But gardeners notice the short growing season grows longer year by year. The port is free of ice earlier and later. Climate change has come to Wassamotta. Far from welcoming this warming trend, citizens say it spells disaster.

The city is built on permafrost, the layer of ice and frozen ground that never thaws. Never, that is, until now. Foundations that currently rest on ice like solid stone will subside as the layer melts. In time, the land that surrounds Wassamotta will turn to swamp, and the city will slowly sink in the morass. All they know, their very way of life, will be swallowed up.

Extraction and burning of fossil fuel is both the cause of their distress and the source of their prosperity. A twist of fate or an unresolvable conundrum? Wassamottans blame the weather and ponder the beauty of transparent crystal, water as jewel. Warmth, they say, is the enemy.

About Robert Boucheron

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Oxford Magazine, Pennyshorts, Poydras Review, Short Fiction, and other magazines.

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Oxford Magazine, Pennyshorts, Poydras Review, Short Fiction, and other magazines.


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